Langdon Hickman’s Top Albums of 2018
The theme of 2017: more above-average records than you could count, with few enough truly great records that made making lists difficult. There were some great ones last year, certainly, but the idea of making a top-10 (or longer) list was built mostly on selecting which solid -- but not future-classic -- records would make up the main body. Turns out, the year 2018 was a total inversion of that.
A recurring theme you may have noticed, regardless of what sites you check out, is a wide variety of records being represented, and that’s because 2018 delivered great albums from a huge number of artists. My "long list" going into this process had roughly 200 albums on it, and while that number may be a bit high for some writers, the sentiment is not far off. Across genre and subgenre bounds, this was a remarkable year.
The biggest shout-out goes, of course, to old school death metal, which had every flavor of those early 1990s sounds represented, from no-frills Swedish death metal to the brutality of early Finnish death metal to the arcane technical and progressive elements of continental and British death metal. Also, lots and lots of Buffalo and Florida-style death metal. This was possibly the best year the genre has ever seen, and easily its best since its heyday, proving that heavy metal still has a lot of great records in classic styles waiting to be written.
20. Jesus Piece -- Only Self (Southern Lord, USA)
19. Harms Way -- Posthuman (Metal Blade, USA)
18. Extremity -- Coffin Birth (20 Buck Spin, USA)
17. Toby Driver -- They Are The Shield (Blood Music, USA)
16. Alkaloid - Liquid Anatomy (Season of Mist, Germany)
15. Lonnie Holley -- MITH (Jagjaguwar, USA)
14. Judas Priest -- Firepower (Columbia Records, UK)
13. Julia Holter -- Aviary (Domino, USA)
12. Rivers of Nihil -- Where Owls Know My Name (Metal Blade, USA)
11. Tomb Mold -- Manor of Infinite Forms (20 Buck Spin, Canada)
A 7LP set (not a typo) of conjoined ambient records, the boxset-cum-studio release Metaphonics was not only one of the most ambitious projects released in 2018 but also one of its finest. Each LP was eventually sold on its own, which conceptually makes sense; they each detail in abstract programmatic fashion the internal sense and experience of various places, from a creek deep in Indiana woods to a county fair in a rural Indiana community struggling with modernity. But they come together in a holographic sense when played near one another, be that in a day or in a week, that becomes one of the most immersive and moving music experiences I’ve had this year.
I don’t think Deafheaven are black metal; rather, they are about as black metal as a group like Astronoid, and the stance on that question matters about as much, which is to say not very much. Ultimately, it is precisely the blend of influences of Deafheaven, which certainly include black metal but are not limited to it, that make some of the most consistently engaging extreme music on an aesthetic and emotional level. I have a fine arts degree so maybe this kind of thing appeals to some aesthetic sense I’m blind to, but lyrically the group has been one of the top of the heap in metal since Sunbather and the way those gorgeous poetic images are draped against gossamer guitars and blast beats makes me weepy.
Voivod is, for me, about as close to my heart as you can get. They sit next to groups like Gorguts, King Crimson, and Yes in terms of making up the center of my musical love, with their playfulness reminding me in an abstract way of performers like Santana or Jimi Hendrix, stuff that feels left-field when it comes out but redefines the shape of their sonic world after. I don’t think anyone would argue about where the golden period of the band is, but as a fan of more or less their entire body, I was glad to see a fairly even synthesis of ideas on this record, their second with Chewy from Martyr on guitars. The Wake stands toe-to-toe with Nothingface and Angel Rat as one of my favorites from the group, something I was pleasantly surprised by. An absolutely fucking great prog thrash record.
Good music is good music, and we don’t get a better understanding of the genres we love if we only stay inside them. Plus, in 2018, what serious metalhead doesn’t love rap? Pusha T ignited the hottest beef of the summer with this record and that was, shockingly, on one of its weaker tracks, album closer “Infrared." Just take a listen to the opener “If You Know, You Know” for an example of why King Push is so widely respected dating back to the mid-1990s with the debut of rap duo Clipse to now, and take a solid look at the overall record to see why sole producer Kanye West, stupid mouth and very bad politics aside, is so respected in musical spaces. An excellent top-shelf record anyone who seriously loves music should check out.
Continuing on that thread, Mitski’s Be The Cowboy was one of the absolute best of the year and, if metrics are anything to go by, the second most listened album on my end. Each song plays like an indie pop song written by someone who grew up listening only to Nirvana and weird prog records, riding a fine line between lo-fi minimalism and the lush detail work of more technically demanding music but with the sidereal song structures common to both lo-fi and progressive music. It’s not a shock to learn that Mitski, a one-woman project, is run by a woman with a degree in composition and performance. She shows serious chops all over the record, from playing chops to writing and arrangement chops, and bends all of these to serve an emotionally devastating core. This took top spot for a lot of people and that’s for a reason. One of the best albums I’ve heard and easily a future classic.
This one is slightly more selfish and perhaps reveals my taste. ISIS was and is a huge band for me, and Sumac always felt to me like the aesthetic next chapter of the ideas of that previous band, not so much a rehash as the answer to the question, “So, what happens next?” Love In Shadow breaks most fully from that previous group, offering a strong dialectical response; they’ve fully integrated the free jazz from their earlier record in the year cut with Keiji Haino, producing the freest set of progressive doom, hardcore, and noise they’ve put to tape. Drummer Nick Yacyshyn and bassist Brian Cook deliver a feral and emotionally-responsive jazzy, progressive backbone for Aaron Turner, a true genius of heavy music, to work over. But don’t let my fanboyish writing alter this simple fact: this is a deeply musically collaborative record and also their most evenly distributed record, feeling more like the beginning of a very beautiful upcoming chapter for the group. Like jazz from hell, or Magma or King Crimson covering Godflesh.
You can’t love metal and not love Low. I’d argue you shouldn’t be able to like music and not like Low, but that’s beside the point. They don’t and have never played metal, but from their earliest slowcore days to now, where they dabble more in glitch and vaporwave and post-minimalist electronic, they have produced the absolute heaviest and most emotionally savage music on the planet. Double Negative is one of their more febrile records, reminding me often of how a group like Bell Witch might use a similar sonic idea of incredibly weak and wavering vocals and instruments to convey a sense of sickness and decay and mortality. These are less songs and more emotive melodic and textural fragments that weave together into a painful and brutal tapestry. Listen to this record and you will understand metal more. And hey, you’ll also discover one of the best bands on the planet.
Another band that seems to draw more from metal than they are a purely metal band. But no matter; like Low, they are producing some of the most emotionally harrowing heavy music on the planet regardless of what specific genre they fall under. This record sees their long-standing dabbling with more traditional electronic music at its most even fusion, seeing both their avant-sludge/noise groundwork and the relatively newer electronic music elements commingling more naturally than their previous record. It is, by extension of this, their current masterwork, at least of their solo material. (Their collaboration game is the best in the business, let’s be frank.) I didn’t see this on as many lists, and I somewhat understand that, but from where I’m standing this record is a nearly unparalleled masterwork regardless of how much you want to listen to it. Like a perfect novel you only read once.
Now that Chelsea Wolfe just straight-up makes doom metal, Emma Ruth Rundle has taken her place as “honorarily heavy metal solo performer." On Dark Horses is a shoegaze record, but one that is often in the same realm of sonic heaviness as Jesu, choosing chords and a slurred vocal style that meshes well with our conceptions of post-metal. This record is yet another in the year that forced a ragged and sorry cry from me and yet still catches me emotionally unawares somedays, making me misty eyed as I walk my dog or drive to work. I can’t properly blurb this record in a small space. It’s an emotional dagger to the heart and one that I imagine I will find myself returning to week in week out for months or years.
This was mandatory in my eyes. The Children of the Night, Tribulation’s previous record, is probably my favorite album of the decade and one of my favorites of all time, a literal perfect record that I cannot say enough about. All they had to do for me was to continue mining that space, which felt like it had more room, and this they did. All the elements remain: a thick gothic atmosphere, but one that is ripe in euphoric Satanism and vampiric splendor. Describing this album in terms of black metal or glam or heavy metal or death metal misses the point; they are the heavy counter to a group like Ghost, both exploring the same emotional and aesthetic terrain of the euphoria of Satanism as opposed to its dourness, delighting in graveyards and death worship and the agony of the spirit in the jaws of life. This, to me, is worship music. Anything that brings me this much spiritual ecstasy, as in true ekstasis, can’t be anything but my top pick. My absolute favorite band going.